CLOSE

Detroit News auto critic reviews Lexus' powerful and futuristic new crossover.

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

Japanese design is widely admired. Elegant gardens. The most Pritzker Architecture Prize winners (six) outside the United States. Even my cartoon colleagues have been influenced by Japanese anime — popular animators like “Boondocks” artist Aaron McGruder and “Samurai Jack” creator Genndy Tartakovsky.

Missing in action has been Japanese auto design — credited with inspiring more naps than imitators. Don’t have No-Doz? Flip through a Lexis ES sedan brochure instead.

Autoplay
Show Thumbnails
Show Captions

But in recent product cycles, a distinct Japanese style has been emerging. Mazda’s KODO curves inhabit everything from the Mazda CX-3 to the Mazda MX-5. Nissan’s Murano is the wild child of the mainstream crossover playground. And now comes Lexus with the boldest, most polarizing thing in luxury SUVs, the ...

Midsized RX350?

Yes, the RX350 (and its hybrid sister RX450h), the best-selling, luxe appliance since 1998. The beige ute. The SUV that launched a thousand snores. That was then. This is now. The official car of Florida retirement communities is a head-turner.

Cruising the streets of Portland, Oregon last week, I caused a rubbernecking epidemic. At a roadside stop a 40-something VW Passat pilot beckoned: “What is that?”

Just as tellingly, graying owners of old RXs seemed oblivious to the radical new ute. They would drive by my Lexus in a beige haze. Lexus expects a younger, hipper generation to be attracted to the sci-fi shape — but will it turn off older, more conservative loyalists?

I’ve modeled the new look for you before. Unlike, say, BMW or Audi, which generally use their flagships to launch new designs that then trickle down to smaller vehicles — Lexus launched its so-called “L-face design” with the little IS sedan, NX crossover and RC sports car. The Extreme Makeover has been a sales hit on the NX with sales running so hot (4,500 a month) that production can’t keep up. Yet the spindle-grille plastic surgery looks so out of place on the sleek RC that it should get an episode on E! network’s “Botched.”

But on the RX, the design has found its vessel.

The huge grille — together with Murano-like creases and floating roof — don’t overwhelm the larger canvas. The look still gets polarized reaction. My posts on social media elicited responses from “that’s plug ugly” to “that front end ... I dunno.” But in-the-flesh comments are more flattering. Most important for Lexus, it gives the beige brand emotional appeal.

It’s a style that runs counter to the anthropomorphic face of most vehicles. The Infiniti Q70 is chubby-cheeked. The Mazda CX-6 a grinning warrior. The RX looks like ... Darth Vader’s mask.

The menacing visage is transforming. No longer was I piloting an invisible appliance; now I was driving something that looked like it had just flown out of a Death Star. Along Portland’s Route 30, my black-Vader-grilled, RC350 F-Sport filled a Nissan Z’s mirrors. I pulled alongside. Our eyes met. The Z sucked my doors off.

The RX’s X Games exterior may cause the heart to race, but not the drivetrain. A Toyota Camry-derived, 3.5-liter V-6 pumping out 295 horsepower is the only engine option (with smooth eight-speed tranny) on the 4,387-pound ute. Opt for the RX450h hybrid and the V-6 and electric motor make a torquey team. The 567-horsepower BMW X5 M need not worry. But, if green is your thing, the racy-lookin’ hybrid will thump a more-expensive Mercedes GLE diesel in every metric from acceleration to fuel economy.

I would opt for the F-Sport model — now available in V-6 or hybrid trims — as its more-weighted steering is a significant improvement over the base model’s frigate-like numbness. Toggle full-time all-wheel drive, spin the Mode wheel to F-Sport-Plus, check the G-meter, and you’ll not only arrive at young Johnny’s soccer game first, you’ll also stand out from all the Ford Explorers and Acura MDXs in the parking lot.

Whoa, dude. When did your Mom get the Galactic Empire star ship?

But when Johnny brings his friends over for a ride home, Mom will have to decline. Sorry kids, no third-row seat. Um, can we talk about this oversight?

Despite its upgrades inside and out, the RX still refuses a third row-seat. It’s not alone. In a luxury segment that parallels a mainstream class where competitors are shunned if they don’t do a threesome, the choices are embarrassingly slim. The Acura MDX and pricey Volvo XC90 are rare exceptions.

A third-row option would nicely fit the RX’s tradition of interior comfort (acres of stitched vinyl and leather abound in a variety of colors including Rioja Red) which gets even bigger thanks to a 2-inch wheelbase extension.

Lexus marketing guru Brian Bolain is candid about the third-row omission. “We know there is a need,” he says. “Our dealers have made it very clear that if there is one wish they could have it would be a third row.”

Love those Lexus dealers. They are the secret sauce to Lexus’ customer loyalty. A friend tells the story of the dealer rep who sold them a car, then came home with them and spent another two hours at the house helping their new RX move in. Programming the garage door opener. Going over maintenance details. I think he even cooked them dinner.

The dealer love helps mask the brand’s (few) deficiencies.

The ’16 RX, for example, retains its claim as midsize luxe’s most affordable ute, but stylish, 10-grand-cheaper, mainstream makes like the Nissan Murano and Ford Edge are more tech savvy.

The RX gets optional adaptive cruise control, blind-spot assist, and 360-degree camera, sure, but so do mainstream utes. Shouldn’t a $42K luxury yacht come standard with these features? Want Apple Car Play like a Chevy? Sorry. Self-park assist like the Edge? Nope.

Solid in so many ways, Lexus can be annoyingly cute in others. Instead of replicating Ford/Audi’s brilliant, foot-actuated auto-rear tailgate, Lexus gives you a hand-actuated feature (hold your paw in front of the rear logo). Huh? Does Lexus think we carry groceries on our heads? At least Lexus has ditched the all-but-unworkable, touch pad-driven infotainment control from the NX.

Lexus has been slow to the turbo revolution, yet the NX’s turbo-4 will be shared soon, giving mpg-hungry customers a cheaper option than hybrid. Lexus will announce pricing for the RX closer to its November arrival in showrooms, but expect a $1,000 jump.

Sci-fi looks come with a price. Dude, Darth Vader is waiting to pick you up from soccer practice.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email him at hpayne@detroitnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2016 Lexus RX350 and RX450h

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front and all-wheel-drive, five-passenger sport ute

Price: TBA (Likely $1,000 increase over 2015 model’s $41,910 base price )

Power plant: 3.5-liter, dual overhead cam V-6 (RX350); 3.5-liter V-6 with Nickel Metal Hydride battery-driven electric motor

Power: 295 horsepower, 267 pound-feet of torque (RX350); Hybrid gas-electric combined 308 horsepower (RX450h)

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic transmission (RX350): Continuously Variable Transmission (RX450h)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6 seconds (RX350); 0-60 mph, 7 seconds (RX450h — both Motor Trend estimates)

Weight: 4,387 pounds. (AWD RX350); 4,740 pounds. (AWD RX450h)

Fuel economy: EPA 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway/22 mpg combined (RX350); EPA 30 mpg city/28 mpg highway/30 mpg combined (RX450h)

Report card

Highs: Darth Vader grille; roomier than ever

Lows: Darth Vader grille; third-row seat, please

Overall:★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE
Read or Share this story: http://detne.ws/1EWTAcy